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Undercover! The power of investigative journalism in Africa

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Undercover! The power of investigative journalism in Africa

Investigative journalism has not been commonplace in Africa. Mainly as a result of the totalitarian system of government from which African countries emerged into independence – a system which employed the laws of  “sedition” and “libel” (both civil and criminal) to punish journalists who “crossed  the line” – African journalism has been largely reverential of authority, as a means, primarily, of self-protection. But one journalist is changing the scene – the “phantom” Ghanaian investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas. In this lead cover piece, our Associate Editor Cameron Duodu discusses the work of the “phantom” journalist and what Africa can learn from his fearless journalism.

Many of the African governments that replaced the British, French or Portuguese administrations, were particularly pompous in outlook. They claimed to be “heroes” in the anti-colonial struggle, and woe betide anyone who ”belittled” what these heroes had done or were doing. Even ordinary editorial opinions that went contrary to what the authorities thought of themselves could attract punishment. Investigative journalism – which often prised out information that the state wanted to keep undisclosed through usually draconian secrecy laws copied from the colonialists – has been unthinkable under many post-colonial African regimes.

The list of journalists who have been martyred on the gallows of investigative journalism in Africa is long and depressing. One just needs to visit the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, and the facts and figures reveal a sad tale and trail indeed.

But death is by no means the only punishment a regime bent on suppressing freedom of expression can mete out to journalists who become too “prying” for the liking of the regime. African media establishments tend to be very poor in resources, and governments know this. Media that are critical of a totalitarian regime can be deliberately starved of paid public announcements that emanate from government sources. But even worse, the government can lean on private businesses to withhold advertising from media that the government considers “hostile” to it. Of course, few business enterprises would knowingly court governmental displeasure by advertising in media considered “undesirable” by the government.

Although journalism in my country, Ghana, is often used as an example of how the media can operate in an atmosphere of freedom in an African country, it was not always so. The Pioneer, a paper that was the main opposition paper during the regime of President Kwame Nkrumah (1957-1966) was closed down in 1962, and the military governments that followed the overthrow of Dr Nkrumah treated newspapers that were critical of their policies no better.

But by far the worst punishment ever imposed on journalists in Ghana occurred during the reign of Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who seized power on 31 December 1981. Under his Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) the offices of the Free Press and Crusading Guide newspapers were “shit-bombed” by government agents. The editor and the publisher of the Free Press were imprisoned without trial and the two men – Tommy Thompson and John Kugblenu – were so badly treated in prison that they both died shortly after being released.

With this background in mind, it can only be left to the imagination to ponder what a sensation has been caused in Ghana by an investigative piece of journalism that has exposed blatant corruption in the judiciary. The investigation has so far resulted in the dismissal of 20 judges and magistrates from the Ghana Bench. Altogether, 34 judges and magistrates have been suspended, while the Judicial Council of Ghana investigates their cases. In addition, nearly 100 court staff – clerks and other workers – have been suspended for facilitating access to judges and magistrates to people who wanted to bribe them.

 

Enter Anas Aremeyaw Anas

The journalist who caused this sensation is called Anas Aremeyaw Anas. 

Only a select few know what he looks like. He is in his late 30s and is a fully qualified legal practitioner. To preserve his anonymity, he never appears in public without covering his face with a mask made up of string and coloured beads, that makes it look as if he is a man without a face. He often tops it with a hat and the total effect is to make him look as if his head had been pulped up and stuck together with glue! How he came by this grotesque disguise – which is often altered by professional prosthetic artistry to suit the subterfuge roles he wishes to play – is something he is yet to share with the rest of his fellow countrymen.

 

 

 


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